Food & Culture

By Gregory Lundberg

To survive, we eat--this is a given. And we do eat--three square meals a day really start to add up! (And we haven’t even factored in those snack-breaks we all sneak from time to time.) Given how often we eat, not to mention the wide variety of foods easily available these days (and at all hours!), it’s easy to take our food for granted. In this lesson, teachers and their students will engage in activities that encourage them to slow down and consider the complex role food plays in our lives. We begin with aphorisms from 19th century French writer Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin, after which we examine artist Mark Menjivar’s photographic portraits, not of people, but of their refrigerators. We then move to two important 2010 Chicago Humanities Festival programs, “Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner” and “The Perfect Meal,” with a dollop of Michael Pollan thrown in for good measure. As a final project, students will design a menu showcasing their own interpretation of the “perfect meal”--for themselves, their parents, and their grandparents--a multi-course, multi-generational gastronomical bonanza. Bon appetit!

View Print-Friendly Format

Email this Lesson Plan

Share Your Comments


English Language Arts

History/Social Studies

World Cultures





Food, Culture, Nutrition, History




Each activity will take one to three class sessions.

Multimedia Content to Share with Students

The link above contains a page specially formatted for your students to view online, with video, audio, and text from the following sources:

  • Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin: The Physiology of Taste (Text)
  • Mark Menjivar: You Are What You Eat (Photography)
  • Michael Laiskonis: How to Get in Touch with Your Inner Child: Dessert (The Atlantic)
  • Michael Pollan: Rules to Eat By (Text)
  • Michael Pollan: Dietary Dos and Don'ts (Interactive)
  • Chicago Humanities Festival: The Perfect Meal (Video)
  • Chicago Humanities Festival: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner (Audio)


  • To raise students’ awareness of the role food plays in our everyday lives;
  • To raise students’ awareness of the relationship between food and identity, food and family, food and culture;
  • To explore the importance of food and ritual;
  • To encourage students to consider their own food choices and, importantly, to take food less for granted;
  • To examine and understand a variety of texts, both written and visual;
  • To synthesize a range of ideas into a cohesive whole;
  • To make an argument supported with both visual and written evidence;
  • To represent one’s own “food cultural” both visually and in writing.

Essential Questions

  • What role does food in our everyday lives?
  • How does one’s choice of food and even manner of eating it shape one’s identity?
  • What role does food play in a family’s culture? How does one’s family shape one’s eating preferences?
  • What would an ideal meal look, and taste, like to you?

State Learning Goals

  • 1C: Students...can comprehend a broad range of reading materials.
  • 2B: Students...can read and interpret a variety of literary works.
  • 3B: Students...can compose well-organized and coherent writing for specific purposes and audiences.
  • 3C: Students...can communicate ideas in writing to accomplish a variety of purposes.
  • 4A: Students...can listen effectively in formal and informal situations.
  • 4B: Students...can speak effectively using language appropriate to the situation and audience.
  • 5A: Students...can ocate, organize, and use information from various sources to answer questions, solve problems, and communicate ideas.
  • 5B: Students...can analyze and evaluate information acquired from various sources.
  • 5C: Students...can apply acquired information, concepts and ideas to communicate in a variety of formats.

A full list of Illinois State Learning standards can be found at the ISBE Website:

Learning Standards (Home)

Learning Standards (English/Language Arts)


Goal: In this activity, students will explore and evaluate some amusing aphorisms about food.


  1. Share the following statements with students. (They are part of a longer list of “aphorisms” in the preface to Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin’s The Philosopher in the Kitchen, originally published in 1825 as La physiolgie du gout. There are a total of 20 aphorisms in the book.)

    1. The world is nothing without life, and all that lives takes nourishment.
    2. Animals feed: man eats: only the man of intellect knows how to eat.
    3. The fate of nations depends on the way they eat.
    4. Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.
    5. The pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss.
    6. The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.

    Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin, The Philosopher in the Kitchen, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970. (A full-text version is available on the Project Gutenberg site under the title The Physiology of Taste.)

  2. Have students select one of Brillat-Savarin’s aphorisms to explore in writing. They should first write out the aphorism and, in a sentence or two, clarify what it seems to mean. They should then respond to the statement by agreeing or disagreeing with it and then supporting their opinion with personal experience and observation. (Students may do this writing in class or for homework.)
  3. Separate students into groups based on the aphorisms to which they have responded. Have each group engage in short “fishbowl discussions” (in which they form a small circle in the middle of the room and carry on a conversation while the rest of the class looks on), a discussion which essentially follows the same structure as their writing: identifying the aphorism in question, restating it in clear terms, and then exploring the relative “truth” of the statement using examples to support their ideas.


Goals: In this activity, students will explore and report on the food culture within their own homes; they will compare and contrast how and what they eat with other students in the class.


  1. Introduce Mark Menjivar, a contemporary artist interested in exploring the old adage, “You are what you eat.” Mendjivar spent several years traveling the country and photographing the interiors of refrigerators. As he writes on his website, “The more time I spent speaking and listening to individual stories, the more I began to think about the foods we consume and the effects they have on us as individuals and communities. An intense curiosity and questions about stewardship led me to begin to make these unconventional portraits. A refrigerator is both a private and a shared space. One person likened the question, ‘May I photograph the interior of your fridge?’ to asking someone to pose nude for the camera.”
  2. Visit Menjivar’s website, read his statement (excerpted above), and take a look at his refrigerator photos: You Are What You Eat. (You can access the photos by clicking the “>” arrow at the bottom of the page.) Notice that a basic description of the refrigerator’s owner accompanies each portrait: “Midwife/Middle School Science Teacher | San Antonio, TX | 3-Person Household (including dog) | First week after deciding to eat all local produce.” After looking at several photos and reading the accompanying descriptions, students should see that they follow a certain pattern: profession, city, size of household, and some relevant bit of information about the owner of the fridge or what’s inside it.
  3. Have students take a Menjivar-esque picture of their family’s refrigerator. They should print the photo on paper that is at least 8.5 x 11 inches (so everyone can see the contents of the refrigerator clearly); at the bottom of the photo, they should write a basic description of the fridge’s owner in the same style as those in Menjivar’s photos. Temporarily mount the photos around the classroom’s wall.
  4. Give students some time for a “gallery walk”--in addition to simply enjoying the art, they should select two pieces to compare and contrast.


  1. Using a Venn Diagram, compare and contrast the contents of two refrigerators. Be as thorough as possible in noting similarities and differences, not only in terms of what’s in each fridge, but also how it is arranged and so on.
  2. Write a 250 to 350 word analysis of your refrigerator investigation. What do the contents of each fridge tell you about the culture, the lifestyle, the habits, and even the quirks of their owners? Use visual evidence--that is to say, the items (and the ways they’re arranged)--to support your analysis.
  3. Write a 250- to 350-word consideration of your own family’s refrigerator. What do the contents of your fridge tell you about your own family’s food values and beliefs? As in Part II, use visual evidence from your own “refrigerator portrait” to support your ideas.


Goals: In this activity, students will explore and report on their family’s “food culture” as it has been passed down through the generations. Even if students’ families have been in the U.S. for multiple generations, it’s very likely that there are culinary/dining traditions they have maintained, in some form, through these generations. Students will investigate the following questions: What foods are unique to your culture? What are their traditional names? (And do these names have any special significance and/or meaning?) What ingredients go into making these foods? How and when are they eaten? Using Michael Pollan’s “Dietary Dos and Dont’s” as a starting point, they will also investigate unspoken family “rules” about food consumption (e.g., what’s okay, and not okay, to eat; how and where should one eat, etc.)


  1. Have a class discussion around the question of “What do you eat for breakfast, and why?” Make a list of breakfast selections on the board or on butcher paper for later reference.
  2. Provide an overview of the CHF’s “Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner” program. (It will probably be interesting to students that the presenters are anthropologists with a focus on the cultural significance of food--they may be surprised that such a job description even exists!) Listen to (or watch) the presenters’ introduction to the program.
  3. Listen to the “Breakfast” section of the program. Take notes. What does each presenter have to say about breakfast, their own traditions, and those of other cultures around the world? How do various breakfast traditions differ? On the other hand, what similarities, if any, do you see? Of the breakfasts presented, which are you most drawn to, and why?
  4. Have students interview their parents and/or their grandparents about the breakfasts they enjoyed as children. What did they eat, and why? How are these breakfasts part of a longer cultural or ethnic tradition? Students should also examine how the breakfasts they eat today are, or are not, part of this tradition. The goal should be to get as much detail about the specifics of their parents’/grandparents’ breakfasts as possible. (If breakfast is too limiting, students can shift their focus to favorite or important meals/dishes.) If possible, gather images of these dishes: taking pictures of the actual dish would be best, but students can also find representations online if they need to.

    Finally, ask parents/grandparents this important question: “What important rule do you follow in selecting the food you eat?”

    Students should prepare a visual profile of their families’ culinary traditions. Ideally, they will chart, with reference to specific dishes, how their families’ breakfast (or dining, in general) traditions have both changed and stayed the same through the last several generations. They should use both the images they found and the descriptions provided by their parents/grandparents in their presentations. Finally, have students share their findings, either in small groups or with the class as a whole.

    A preface to this activity could be reading the following article in The Atlantic online, How to Get in Touch with Your Inner Child: Dessert. This article is about the role of sweets in our lives, but it also has a very interesting and touching final section on one New York restaurant’s re-imagining of tres leches, a traditional Mexican dessert. Importantly, the article gets at one man’s fond memories of not just eating tres leches, but of traveling to Mexico to visit his grandmother, of going with her to the bakery, and of eating it in her kitchen. (It would be interesting to talk with students about the connection between food and emotion!)

  5. Read and discuss Michael Pollan’s Rules to Eat By, a short article he wrote wrote for the New York Times Magazine. What are Pollan’s major interests? What aspects of our current “food culture” is he trying to learn more about? And what was the impetus behind his “Food Rules” challenge to his readers?
  6. Watch the slide show of Dietary Dos and Don’ts Pollan put together after receiving responses from his readers. Which one resonates with you? Discuss.
  7. Have students take the responses to the “food rule” question they posed to their parents/grandparents and design a small, simple poster (in the style of Pollan’s slides). Post the rules around the room.


Goals: In this activity, students will consider their own favorite foods, and they will examine what it is about those foods that they love. Building on earlier activities, especially their study of their own family’s food culture, they will develop a menu for their own “perfect meal.”


  1. Introduce the concept of the panel discussion, and provide an overview of the CHF’s “Perfect Meal” program: what is the focus of the discussion, who are the three panelists, and what makes each uniquely qualified to discuss the idea of “the perfect meal”?
  2. Open the video file, The Perfect Meal, and watch the introduction (Segment 1). How does the moderator Gwen Macsai establish the tone for the talk? What interesting connections does she make between food, our senses, and our lives? Discuss.
  3. Continue on to Segments 2 and 3 of the video--these segments deal primarily with each panelist’s idea of the “perfect meal.” Students should take notes while watching, so that afterwards, the class can discuss the similarities and differences in each panelist’s notions of the perfect meal and/or perfect dish. What kinds of foods are they talking about, and what kinds of associations does each panelist make with their choices? Discuss as a class, the goal being to identify patterns and trends in the way people, particularly food pros, talk about favorite, personally-important foods.
  4. As a final activity, students will each create a menu for multi-course meal for their families that incorporates all of the ideas they have encountered in this lesson plan:

    • Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin’s aphorisms concerning the nature of eating, particularly “good eating”;
    • Food and dishes that are both personally and culturally signficant
    • Michael Pollan’s “Dietary Dos and Don’ts”
    • The meal of choice can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and there should be at least five courses on the menu: one appetizer, three main courses (or one main course and two sides), and one dessert. (These are minimums--students should feel free to add dishes.) Students should add an annotation to each dish and, if possible, a picture.
    • The main requirement is that the meal should satisfy both the students’ individual tastes and their families’ culinary history and culture--it should be a meal at least three generations could sit down to and enjoy.

    Finally, encourage students to design their menus to look like, well, menus. (Along these lines, it might make sense to study the layout and organization of a variety of restaurants.) Students will present their menus to the class.

Discussion and Feedback

Educators: Please use the form below to post a comment if you found this page useful. Feel free to add suggestions for other educators, or tell us how you used this lesson plan in your classroom. We want to hear from you!

blog comments powered by Disqus